Work from home. Social distance. Wear a mask. Shelter in place. Flatten the curve.
For most of us, these were unfamiliar concepts just a few months ago. Now, these words and actions are commonplace.
Another word for 2020: pivot.
Pivot the proposal. Pivot to distance learning. Pivot to Zoom calls. Pivot to Shipt or curbside grocery delivery.
All of us have found ourselves living in history. For the privileged, this has meant the upending of routines. For other communities, it has meant unimaginable tragedy exacerbated by structural injustice.
But for many members of the immigrant diaspora in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is just another moment to pivot.
“A little bit before the pandemic, we were focused on trying to finish our renovation at the restaurant,” says Hamissi Mamba, who along with wife Nadia Nijimbere, have been working for the past few years to open Baobab Fare, a traditional East African eatery and cafe in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood.
The couple had plans to hold a grand opening in May, but as with every other eating establishment in Michigan and across the country, plans changed as the coronavirus surged.
That doesn’t mean the work halted.
As refugees from war-torn Burundi, Mamba and Nijimbere are used to pivoting. They have escaped political unrest and civil war navigated a long-distance relationship and relocated across the globe to Detroit. They’ve pivoted to new careers as restaurateurs, advocates for social justice, and Black Muslim immigrants living in the Motor City.
When the pandemic global health crisis hit the United States, Mamba and Nijimbere’s first thought was to help others. The couple used their stimulus check and began feeding healthcare workers, an effort that ballooned into preparing more than 400 meals for healthcare workers at the Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS), a nonprofit community-based healthcare provider in Southwest Detroit.
“For the first time, we were in a position where we were providing help. Since we’ve been in this country we were in a position where we were seeking help,” says Mamba.
A few hundred more meals went to medical staff at the Henry Ford Hospital campuses in Dearborn and Detroit. A friend whose husband works in the Dearborn ER began raising funds to both feed the staff and provide restaurateurs like Mamba and Nijimbere with income.
This kind of outreach is what helped the family’s transition to the United States easier in the first place, says Mamba, so it was a no-brainer to do the same when the community that helped the family so much was in need.
“Success is not money, it is the people around you.” —Hamissi Mamba
Nijimbere was the first to arrive in Michigan in 2013 after she became a target of police that were abusing women that she was helping in her work as a human rights advocate. She had a sister who was living in Michigan and was also seeking asylum.
Shortly after Nijimbere arrived, she found out she was pregnant with twins. She sought the assistance of Freedom House, one of the largest providers of shelter and wraparound services in the country specifically set up for asylum seekers. Clients receive access to immigration attorneys, culturally sensitive mental health services, and other support geared specifically toward the needs of refugees. She also received prenatal care from CHASS Center during her pregnancy. It wasn’t until Mamba arrived in Detroit two years later that he met his daughters for the first time.
When the strain that the surge in coronavirus cases placed on local emergency rooms came into public view, preparing meals for frontline workers became a natural step the couple could take while they waited for the go-ahead to resume plans for their restaurant opening.
They started their outreach efforts from the kitchen at Yum Village, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant situated on the same block where Baobab Fare will open. Yum Village owner Godwin Ihentuge was also in the midst of providing emergency meals to those in need, so when space ran out, the couple transformed their Grosse Pointe Park home kitchen into a makeshift assembly line.
Before the crisis, Mamba had spent a few years working to introduce Detroit to the traditional flavors of Burundi with his Baobab Fare concept. While there are some options for continental African cuisine in Metro Detroit, most of the food skews more toward Western African traditions, which tend to be more meat-centric. Mamba says food in Burundi is more veggie-friendly, with a focus on spice and legumes. And it’s all halal, defined as any object or action deemed permissible to engage in, according to Islamic law. That detail is especially appealing in Metro Detroit, a region home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the country.
Inspired by his experiences helping his mother in the kitchen when he was younger, Mamba decided to focus on opening a restaurant when he enrolled in the startup incubator ProsperUS Detroit, which focuses on helping immigrant entrepreneurs launch and scale businesses.
In 2017, Mamba and Nijimbere won $50,000 through Hatch Detroit, a competition that awards new businesses with seed money. To get the brand visibility, they began hosting pop-up dinners and catering special events featuring Mamba’s recipes for spiced rice pilau with beef or vegetables, yellow beans, savory stew, and plantains. The buzz helped them score a loyal following.
“Finding ourselves in Detroit without knowing anything or anyone, we are like the Baobab tree in the desert. We still found a way to grow.” —Nadia Nijimbere
The couple found that their signature dishes served as a gateway into conversations with Black Detroiters around African identity ancestry.
While the pandemic has slowed the couple’s opening progress, it hasn’t slowed interest in Baobab Fare. With the hundreds of new people who have been introduced to the food in recent months, there is a renewed buzz for the brick and mortar.
“Every time (we bring food into the hospitals), we get a lot of feedback, thanking us for the food,” Mamba says. “We get people calling asking, ‘Is your restaurant open?’ and ‘Where is the restaurant located?’ We tell them we haven’t opened yet, but we’re going to be right down the road.”
The crisis has also renewed the couple’s resolve to foster community. In addition to preparing meals for frontline workers, they have donated $2 from every sale of their bags of imported Burundi coffee (which will be featured at the restaurant) to support a GoFundMe for immigrants who lack legal status in the United States who’ve been impacted by the pandemic.
The crisis has also reminded them that their experiences as refugees have prepared them to handle any situation with grace.
“Immigrants and refugees don’t have a choice for giving up a problem,” Mamba says. “You have to fight to overcome whatever problem that you face.”